Friday, 10 April 2009

Combat Gnosticism and the Woman Poets of the First World War

James Campbell's 'Combat Gnosticism: The Ideology of First World War Poetry Criticism' ranks among the best and most provocative essays I have read on the poetry of the First World War. If you have access through Project Muse (linked above), I strongly recommend the essay in its entirety, because I can only do limited justice to it here.

Campbell makes a case that the canon of war poetry is founded on what he calls 'combat gnosticism' --- that is, 'the belief that combat represents a qualitatively separate order of existence that is difficult if not impossible to communicate to any who have not undergone an identical experience'. Failing to critique this ideology, scholarship has merely replicated it. Campbell concludes that 'trench lyric criticism has itself striven to become the trench lyric in prose form.'

A great deal of Campbell's argument seems absolutely right. He points out that 'Dulce et Decorum Est' has been overrated because of its extreme (but as Campbell shows, problematic) claims to realism, with better poems relegated to the supporting cast. Campbell is also very good at exposing the extra-aesthetic reasons why some of these poems are valorised; readers understand them as pieces of documentary evidence rather than art. (Ironically, many would level the same criticism at those poems which Campbell wants to see added to the canon.) There is, for example, a danger that Wilfred Owen's claims to present 'Truth' raise his works above criticism, as when Seamus Heaney worries that his occasional complaints about Owen's poetry are 'prissy' and 'trivial' compared with 'what lay behind [Owen's] words'.

I start to feel uneasy about Campbell's argument when he embraces what he calls 'feminist stud[ies] of war literature' as an aid to his argument about canonical bias. His silent shift from 'poetry' to 'literature' is strategic. The case that there were significant women writers engaging with the First World War is unanswerable, but the case that there were significant women poets is less easily made. The feminist critic Jan Montefiore has dismissed women's poetry of the war as 'bad' because scarred with 'literary cliches'. I think that Charlotte Mew's achievement bears comparison with any soldier-poet's, but she only wrote three short poems explicitly about the war and her place in studies of war poetry is therefore peripheral. Finding anthologies of women's war poetry 'useful in suggesting the extent and variety of women's verse', Simon Featherstone has argued that they lack poets as challenging as Owen or (for that matter) prose writers like Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen:the anthologies 'provided ample evidence of women's poetic activity during the wars, but response to that activity, on the whole, was limited to an acknowledgement of its presence rather than a sustained engagement with the poetry itself.'

The conspiracy theory that women poets (and others) have been overlooked by scholarship because of its commitment to combat gnosticism collapses, then, on purely aesthetic grounds. Most combatant-poets are now forgotten: however 'gnostic' their work, it isn't good enough to survive. If Owen had written bad poetry, his truth-telling claims would be irrelevant. The promotion of combat gnosticism has only been possible because it has not excluded significant voices or contradicted value judgements. Cause and effect have been muddled up in Campbell's argument. Were there a woman war poet the equal of Virginia Woolf, combat gnosticism would have been unsustainable as a canon-forming ideology. If Campbell believes that women poets have been unfairly ignored, why does he fail to name a single one except to join the condemnation of that eternally useful straw woman, Jessie Pope?

The quiet expansion of the war poetry canon in the last two decades must be welcome, although there is very little evidence that it has assimilated poets important enough to bring about a radical change in our perception of the war's finest poetry. Scars upon my Heart, Catherine Reilly's anthology of First World War women poets, is highly uneven in quality, as even the introduction by Judith Kazantzis seems to concede. However, it introduced me and many others to the works of Margaret Postgate Cole and May Wedderburn Cannan, two poets who belong in those anthologies of First World War verse which offer a home to the best of both sexes.


  1. Some might view the omission of women from the WWI poetry canon as a conspiracy but I believe there is a different reason – several actually, including the obvious fact that some poetry simply doesn’t make the cut. However, there is more to consider. Traditionally we have been indoctrinated to view and judge the world solely through the male prism and perspective while being held to the male “standard” as the measuring stick for what we think, how we interpret and what we produce. Women as well as men have accepted this “standard” because those of us of certain generations had no other options. Add to this the fact that our histories have largely been written by men, who tend to overlook women, relegate them to footnote status and not take them seriously as being worthy contributors unless they are so high profile that they cannot be ignored. I have spent some 30 years restoring women to music history books and I can assure you that this is a reality. Women have made progress but their contributions are still largely invisible. I recall the case of a now-famous woman composer who was identified as the “wife of…” as the qualification she needed for inclusion in a major reference book.
    If I have found this to be true in music and the visual arts, I expect that the same holds true for women writing poetry in WWI. There could well be a woman who made a significant contribution to war poetry and we haven’t found her yet. Her contribution might be hidden in an attic, buried in an archive, lost to a bonfire or deposited anonymously in a used bookshop, where, for example, I once found six of poet Teresa Hooley’s manuscripts, her editing marks and all, tucked in a book of her poetry in small bookshop in western Massachusetts! Her poem “A War Film” has appeared in WWI anthologies.
    There is a “canonical bias” but I do not think that these omissions necessarily qualify as “conspiracy” as much as they reflect the general marginalization of women, a lack of understanding of the female perspective, an unwillingness to view the world through the female prism and a resistance to consider feminine sensibilities. Someone once said to me “We have Vera Brittain’s memoir, what more do we need.” It was not a question but a statement. When Brittain wrote Testament of Youth, she understood that “no one expected a woman to understand anything about war, much less to record it.” But Brittain had a story to tell. “I see things other than they [male writers] have seen, and some of the things they perceived, I see differently.”
    We cannot judge women’s experience in war using the measuring stick of men or hold them to the same “standard”. If the late Catherine Reilly’s Scars Upon My Heart (the title is taken from a poem by Brittain) is of uneven quality, it is largely because she did not have a very deep well from which to draw her selection in 1981! She also believed that it was important to include poems of lesser quality because they gave modern readers insight into the mindset of the generation that endured WWI. Reilly was a pioneer.
    Rather than go into a lengthy discourse about women writing poetry in WWI, I would like to suggest that those interested – and I hope that some are – will take the time to read Nosheen Khan’s classic, groundbreaking book Women’s Poetry of the First World War (1988, University of Kentucky Press). Feminist it might be, but it is honest and fair.
    “The ignorance displayed towards women’s literature of the First World War, in an age that lavishes wholesale attention even upon the most peripheral of material spawned by the war, is hard to understand unless it is seen as flowing from the atavistic feeling that war is man’s province and one which has no room for women,” writes Khan. “Or perhaps it is connected with the male fallacy that subordination is habitual for the female, who consequently demands no recognition for herself.”
    Two other books that might help anyone understand women in WWI are Lines of Fire: Women Writers of World War I, edited by Margaret R. Higonnet (1999, Plume) and The Virago Book of Women and the Great War, edited by Joyce Marlow (1998, Virago).

  2. oh how interesting Tim and Karen, and slightly daunting from the p.o.v. of a war poet who happens to be a woman...

    I'm glad that Catherine Reilly brought out the second anthology, Chaos of the Night, with its lovely grab-bag of poems, but then again, I'll read anything no matter which gender wrote it, no matter if the author actually lobbed the grenade, fired the Carl Gustave, the 105mm Howitzer, etc., no matter if the work is deemed well-written or not...

    as I have said many times, war, like a Seurat, needs thousands of points of paint ( words, images, film etc.) for us to begin to see the greater picture, but ultimately, none of us will know what lasts and what will not... all I know is that my piece on the Balkan genocide (based on a conversation with a retired soldier living with PTSD) causes the young to sit up and listen... at a recent reading, a young woman approached me and said to me, "those little bones in the forest could have been mine... I was a refugee of that war and left when I was 4 1/2 years old... escaped to Australia"...

    and that my August Widow compelled more than one reader to write to me that they want to read poetry again...

    I believe that this war work of ours (collectively, from all p.o.v.'s) must be written, whether it well-written or not... it's up to us to listen to the times/leave the record/let the future argue our words, our place in it all...

    and ultimately, while writers may hope that a line or an image may live on, in the end, we shall be the dust

  3. I take the point, Pam, and I agree with a lot of what you say. But when an important feminist critic like Jan Montefiore, who has done so much to discover and re-discover women writers, dismisses women's poetry of the First World War as mediocre at best, we need to name poets and poems in order to prove her wrong. I've said that Mew is the match of the best war poets. I don't think that others are. As you imply, manuscripts may lie hidden in attics, but there isn't much we can do about that except keep our eyes open.

    As for Brittain, whatever her virtues as a prose writer, she isn't a poet of note. "Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart" is exactly the kind of line which Montefiore condemns as hackneyed.

    Pam --- have you read any women poets of the war for whom you'd want to make a case? I want to believe that they're out there, and I do think that Cannan and Cole are good.

  4. I agree with you about Mew. Cannan and Cole are also good. I certainly agree that much WWI poetry by women is mediocre, predictable or simply bad sing-song rhyme that come off as forced. Back then, the belief that a poem must rhyme served as a wedge, I think, that acted like a restraint to keep originality at bay. These poems were probably fine when they first appeared in print because they fit the mood of the day but they don’t wear beyond the moment. They were written in a haze of patriotism or to fulfill the need to express one’s anguish or misery somehow so poetry became the medium -- everyone seemed to be writing verse.

    However, I do wonder if perhaps Montefiore might be a bit too rigid and astringent in her assessments of women’s poetry -- if she might be ignoring or sidestepping women’s feelings believing them to be too sentimental (sentimental seems to be taboo these days) in a quest for some cool intellectual high ground? I haven’t read Montefiore’s work so I don’t know but sometimes I find feminist critics rather insensitive and hard-edged, quite dismissive of women who act and respond like women. But do these responses qualify at art and how is a woman supposed to respond? As a visual person myself I always liked Brittain’s line “Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart” because the words create a picture of the writer’s pain for me. It might be hackneyed but it tells me what I need to know about her feelings. That said, Brittain is guilty of sing-song writing and her poem wears very thin, very quickly!

    To answer your question, I find the war poetry of Mary Borden (1886-1968), the American ex-patriot who made her home in Britain, very striking. She qualifies as a woman who rises above the mediocre in her unsparing WWI poems. She was a novelist and memoirist so her poetry did not garner much attention after it appeared in the English Review in 1917. As far as I know, she made no effort to publish it again until 1929 when she included it in her memoir The Forbidden Zone. In fact, I can’t recall ever seeing her poems listed in any anthology of WWI poetry until Margaret Higonnet included one in her Lines of Fire, a collection of women’s writing from WWI, and Dominic Hibberd included “Unidentified” in his anthology The Winter of the World. Yet Borden's poetry was angry and searing in its intensity – she was no apologist for the war or a writer who wanted to turn fallen men into heroes or portray them as angels for their sacrifices. She cut to the core and spilled out the graphic realities of war as she saw them from the perspective of a woman who dealt daily with the shattered wreckage of men’s bodies hauled into her mobile hospital directly from the battlefield. She lived in the tortured landscape. Her voice is modern, intense and insistent with a driving beat as she presents war with a photographic realism. From Borden’s “Unidentified”

    Look close at this man. Look!
    He waits for death;
    He watches it approach;
    His little bloodshot eyes can see it bearing down on every side;
    He feels it screaming in the frantic air.
    Death that tears the shrieking sky in two,
    That suddenly explodes out of the festering bowels of the earth –
    Dreadful and horrid death.
    He takes the impact of it on his back, his chest, his belly and his arms;
    Spreads his legs upon its lurching form;
    Plants his feet upon its face and breathes deep into his pumping lungs
    the gassy breath of death.
    He does not move.
    In all the running landscape there’s a solitary thing that’s motionless:
    The figure of this man.

    Then she moves to the landscape

    The sky long since has fallen from its dome.
    Terror let loose like a gigantic wind has torn it from the ceiling of the world,
    And it is flapping down in frantic shreds.

    Nosheen Khan observes that Borden’s “The Hill”, a description of the battlefield seen from a vantage point “anticipates Owen’s ‘The Show’; it also suggests Borden’s familiarity with Hardy’s The Dynasts”. Dominic Hibberd sees the influence of Whitman in “Unidentified” as do I. Borden was writing verse that painted indelible pictures:

    This is the hymn of the mud – the obscene,
    the filthy, the putrid,
    The vast liquid graves of our armies.
    It has drowned our men.
    Its monstrous distended belly reeks with the
    undigested dead…

    I can’t think of any other women poets who were writing so viscerally about war. Many of the men were restrained by comparison. There is a new edition of The Forbidden Zone that includes Borden’s her war poems -- I do not know if she wrote more WWI poems.

    Scholarship on women’s writing in WWI, particularly poetry, is relatively new so there is much that needs to be explored. Thirty years ago I heard the same arguments against women composers (and not only from men either) but time has proved the doubters wrong.


  5. When I first read Campbell's essay some time back, I got caught on his key point: 'the belief that combat represents a qualitatively separate order of existence that is difficult if not impossible to communicate to any who have not undergone an identical experience.' Rephrased, it could be stated simply that there is an aspect of trauma which is incommunicable, which language is insufficient to convey. Evidently Campbell believes there is no experience which cannot be fully communicated by language. That is a large assumption. I wish he had explored it.

  6. In the Preface of The Forbidden Zone Mary Borden wrote: ‘To those who find these impressions confused, I would say that they are fragments of a great confusion. Any attempts to reduce them to order would require artifice on my part and would falsify them...I would say that I have blurred the bare horror of facts and softened the reality in spite of myself, not because I wished to do so, but because I was incapable of a nearer approach to the truth.’

    Borden’s sense of chaos leaving confused impressions irreducible to words logically or artfully set on a page is echoed in Edmund Blunden’s own fragmentary descriptions of his experiences in Undertones of War. ‘...[A] peculiar difficulty would exist for the artist to select the sights, faces, words, incidents, which characterized the time,’ he wrote. ‘The art is rather to collect them, in their original form of incoherence.’